Get ready for an unpredictable edition of playoff hockey. Needless to say, the pause to regular season action has halted all previous momentum. Injured players are returning. Regular season records don’t feel as important as in prior years and momentum is a thing of the past. Rather than offer an educated guess for who will win the Stanley Cup, let’s look at some interesting storylines that could rear their heads in this unique postseason.
Rust from rest
The regular season was paused back in mid-March due to COVID-19. Players went home, while gyms and other businesses were shut down. With over three months of no hockey, we can only guess how each player spent their break. Did some workout everyday, firmly believing the playoffs would happen eventually? Did others hardly exercise at all, because they didn’t have access to local gyms or assumed the season was over? We’ll never know for sure who worked out and who didn’t during the COVID-19 break, but we will notice who looks more polished on the ice when the games start.
Desperation vs preparation
Each team recently finished an exhibition game to prepare for the playoffs. In the playoffs, the top four teams from each conference will play each other in a round-robin for playoff seeding. Meanwhile, eight other teams from each conference will battle each other in a best-of-five series.
While these teams will be fighting to stay alive in the playoffs, the teams playing in the round-robin are merely battling for seeding in a year when seeding doesn’t carry the significance of previous postseasons. Don’t be surprised if teams in the round-robin games aren’t playing with the same intensity as the teams in the best-of-five-series.
The round-robin teams might treat their games as tune-up opportunities, rather than a do-or-die situation. Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy noticed how his team, who is preparing for the round-robin, played in their exhibition game against Columbus.
“[Columbus] had more urgency,” Cassidy said on NHL.com. “Obviously, they’re getting right into their elimination games, so their mindset was clearly different than ours early on. I think we were to a certain extent just trying to get back into live hockey, whereas they were playing for keeps.”
The round-robin games won’t be bad by any means, but don’t expect the same level of intensity as the playoff series, especially because each round robin team only plays each other once.
“Tanking” is a curse word in the world of sports. Fans and journalists might hypothesize the idea of a team tanking, but such a notion is rarely acknowledged by a coach or player. Due the complex nature of the NHL Draft Lottery, the top draft pick is a mystery. The team who has the top pick is one of the teams who will play in a best-of-five series. If you are that team, and you lose your series, you get the top pick. If you win your series, a different team will get the top pick. This was put in place to prevent a team from winning the Stanley Cup and the top draft pick in the same year.
The idea of tanking in the playoffs sounds preposterous, but remember the playoff field was expanded to 24 teams this year. Some of these playoff teams have massive holes which could be filled with the top pick in the draft. I don’t think we’ll see a team intentionally lose their playoff series, but only time will tell.